Northern Ireland

Sinn Féin leader says Michelle O’Neill’s appointment as first minister is ‘moment of very great significance’

Sinn Fein's Conor Murphy MLA, president Mary Lou McDonald and vice-president Michelle O'Neill in the Great Hall at Stormont, Belfast after the DUP party executive backed a Government deal aimed at addressing its concerns over post-Brexit trade barriers. PICTURE: COLM LENAGHAN
Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald and vice-president Michelle O'Neill in the Great Hall at Stormont. PICTURE: COLM LENAGHAN

Mary Lou McDonald has welcomed moves by the DUP to “respect the outcome” of the 2022 assembly election which saw Sinn Féin become Stormont’s largest party.

Speaking in the aftermath of Monday’s DUP executive meeting endorsing a restoration of the institutions, Mrs McDonald said the expected appointment of Michelle O’Neill as first minister was a “moment of very great significance”.

DUP support for the deal it negotiated unilaterally with the British government means power-sharing could return as early as Friday, following two years of dormancy.

The British government will lay two statutory instruments at Westminster on Wednesday, dealing with the north’s constitutional status and internal UK trade respectively, paving the way for an assembly recall.

Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris suggested the deal agreed with the DUP would not prevent the UK from developing different trade rules to the EU.

He said the agreement “hasn’t affected divergence in any shape or form”.

Mr Heaton-Harris said there were “some significant changes” in what the British government had tabled and that they’d be apparent when the legislation was published.

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson urged people to wait to see the deal’s detail before rushing to judge it.

DUP Leader Jeffrey Donaldson speaks to the media at Stormont Castle after a leaders meeting on Tuesday, It follows the DUP's agreement to return to the NI Assembly - after agreeing to a package of measures put forward by the government.
DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson. PICTURE: COLM LENAGHAN

He said people were “already seeing on day one” what the deal is delivering and that it represented “significant change” from the Windsor Framework.

“I welcome the fact that we are now beginning to see the delivery of what was promised with the announcement today between the UK government and the EU that there is further legal change that will be of real benefit to businesses in Northern Ireland, that ensures that Northern Ireland benefits fully from UK free trade deal,” he said.

“These were key elements in our requirements, in our negotiations with the government.

Mrs McDonald said the north was “on the cusp” of the re-establishment of government.

“It has been a long time coming but we are very pleased we are at this juncture,” she said.

“We are conscious that there is a huge amount of work to be done, that society has really suffered from the absence of government over the last two years.”

She said almost two years on from the May 2022 assembly election.

“I very much welcome the fact that the DUP have now moved to explicitly recognise and respect the outcome of that assembly election,” the Sinn Féin leader said.

“We look forward now to getting the job done, getting ministers in place, having MLAs return to the chamber and Michelle O’Neill taking up position as first minister.”

Alliance leader Naomi Long said she had “bittersweet emotions” over the DUP’s acceptance of the deal.

Alliance Leader Naomi Long speaks to the media   on Tuesday, after  the DUP's agreement to return to the NI Assembly - after agreeing to a package of measures put forward by the government.
Alliance leader Naomi Long flanked by MLAs Eoin Tennison (left) and Andrew Muir. PICTURE: COLM LENAGHAN

“I am pleased that we are now potentially in a position to see the restoration of the institutions and to be able to actually start doing all of our jobs after a two-year block on that,” she said.

“I admit I am still slightly stinging from the fact that we have lost that two years, that the damage that has been done can’t simply be undone.”

Ulster Unionist leader Doug Beattie said the DUP’s decision to boycott the institutions was “never going to work”.

“Those people who thought it was going to work are absolutely wrong – “I think we as a party have been vindicated in regards to that,” he said.

The Upper Bann MLA declined to give a commitment that his party would join the executive.

“We will look at what the programme for government is going to be in the long term,” he said.

“If that meets the Ulster Unionists’ aspirations, we will absolutely walk into the executive and play our part – if it looks like a carve-up between the two biggest parties, if it looks like we’re still going to be in a fragile executive, then maybe that’s not the place for us, but that’s going to happen over the next couple of days.”

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said the return of the Stormont institutions had been a “long time coming” and that “years of stagnation” had damaged the region’s public services.

“In spite of that, this is a better day for people across Northern Ireland and I am optimistic that the democratic institutions can be restored in short order,” he said.

TUV leader Jim Allister said the decision by the DUP to accept the British government proposals “could be game over for the union”.

He said he believed the deal would mean the north “will never again be a full part of the United Kingdom”.